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February 6, 2009
Inside the Icebox
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The good news is that we are going to bring you another "Cantore Stories" episode. The bad news (for us, the producers of the show) we went to International Falls, MN. Now nothing against International Falls but its called the "Icebox of the Nation" for a reason. It's regarded as the coldest town in the continental U.S. Try using a video camera when it is -24 degrees! Ouch!

Here we are (Howard on the left, Jim on the right) hard at work!

But, the highlights of the trip included ice fishing and the polar plunge (more on that later). To go fishing, you have to travel on ice roads on frozen Rainy Lake. Now, it is a little nerve-wracking to be told to keep your windows down and seat belts unbuckled ("just in case").

Once you get out on the frozen lake, you encounter hundreds of fish houses. They are all heated to some degree and many include beds, satellite TV and mini-kitchens. Of course, there are three or four fishing holes drilled in the ice inside the fish house?All the comforts of home as you drop a line! Not exactly what we envisioned about ice fishing!

We were treated to an International Falls delicacy while fishing?a bacon, onion and walleye sandwich. It is tradition to eat these while ice fishing...The bacon is fried first and then the breaded walleye is cooked in the bacon grease. Meanwhile, the onion is soaking in lemon juice...Slap all that on a piece of buttered white bread and mmm good!

Now to the polar plunge! We witnessed seven people, dressed only in swimsuits and bikinis jump into the frozen lake. The air temperature was about 10 degrees that day and the water temperature was about 35 degrees. Very refreshing! One guy even did a cannonball into the water! About the water, it took a construction crew several hours to chainsaw a hole in the ice big enough for these intrepid folks to enter. How did these people get up the courage? Well, the "before plunge" sauna and a couple of "adult beverages" seemed to warm them up to the task...

The Polar Plunge!

Jim Gagne in front of the ice hole.

Interviewing one of the brave.

We had to check this thing out up close!

Write us back and let us know if you've ever been to International Falls or been a part of a "polar plunge"! And hopefully you'll tune in for the show because it should be a good one.

Howard Sappington, Senior Executive Producer
Jim Gagne, Senior Producer

Posted at 9:11 pm ET
Hurricanes of the Past, Present and Future
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Dr. Steve Lyons, Tropical Weather Expert

Maybe this blog is aimed more at builders, developers and politicians rather than at you J.Q. Public, you decide. Sometimes things amaze each of us. For me when it comes to hurricanes it never ceases to amaze me how we never seem to learn from the past or present, rather we just sit and wait for the forecast of our future, as if we have no clue what it will bring. It reminds me of Charles Dickens' classic tale "A Christmas Carol." Ebenezer Scrooge after dismissing Christmas as "bah, humbug" settles into a sleep on Christmas Eve only to be visited by spirits/ghosts; one from his past, one from his present and finally one from his future. The most amazing thing to me in this great story has always been why it took that final spirit, the spirit of Christmas future (which shows to Ebenezer a dead Tiny Tim along with a dark and flowerless grave that is his own) before he is able to see his selfish ways. And most importantly to change away from his retched existence before it is too late to save Tiny Tim or to save himself. What a great story, that surely makes everyone joyful and filled with kindness when Ebenezer awakens to Christmas morning, not too late to send the biggest turkey in town to Tiny Tim's family and to joyfully share his wealth with everyone he meets that magic day. Yes, transformations are possible if you believe this Dickens tale. I have read his book and I have seen the story in many forms with a variety of actors on TV for more 50 years. I never grow tired of watching; it still remains one of my favorite books/movies. Charles Dickens was a genius; he really had to have known the behavior of man well to have known that final spirit of Christmas future was necessary to change the behavior of Ebenezer Scrooge!

I liken this story to hurricanes. I know you are saying "he's lost my mind," but read on before you make that final judgment. You see, we are visited by ghosts of hurricanes past and ghosts of hurricanes present, but it ends there. We never seem to be able to realize the ghosts of future hurricanes will come. Unfortunately, as Charles Dickens so cleverly wrote, that is the ghost that makes all the difference. So let me show you a few hurricane ghosts with hope it will change your mind about how we the USA deal with hurricanes.

We look back to August 1983, a small hurricane forms off the coast of Texas and it's named Alicia. For many of you this is the distant past, you weren't born yet or you had no interest in the coast as you lived hundreds of miles from it. But I was there; I had finished my Ph.D. and a post-doc position and took a job in Houston forecasting waves and tropical cyclones for oil companies around the world. Hurricane Alicia strengthened to CAT 3 with a very sudden burst just offshore and blew across Galveston and Houston wrecking havoc on windows, trees, rooftops and power lines across that city. Surge devastated portions of the coast. I lost part of my roof and my new condo was flooded. When I fixed it, I made sure that could not happen again. Fortunately Alicia was small, but if you were in the eyewall winds like I was you remember the details vividly. I remember some vague details about the "great hurricane of 1900" were awakened by news media as Alicia neared the coast, but other than a few very old people no one remembered that past hurricane except through a few old photos, few listened. It was miserable to have no power in August and part of September in Houston after Alicia, not to mention part of my roof missing.

In 2001 a weak tropical storm with similar name "Allison" appeared to be an uneventful weak little thing, until it stalled over Houston and dumped 37 inches of rain on parts of that city causing a massive flood. A different damage footprint, but for some it caused far worse damage than Alicia had caused, yet in real time it was a real surprise to many as all tropical storm advisories had been cancelled and much of the rain fell at night!

Now, let's fast forward to 2008 and what I will call hurricanes present. Alicia and Allison had become distant memories to many, and to others it was never more than a few quotes about statistics from past tropical cyclones. Very large hurricane Ike struck the upper Texas coast wrecking havoc once again on Galveston, and the Bolivar Peninsula. To many it was the first time this had ever happened in the area. They were not there for Alicia in '83 or for Allison in ?01 and surely not there for the great 1900 hurricane. And for those that remembered Alicia, this weaker CAT 2 hurricane Ike could not possibly be as bad as CAT 3 Alicia had been. But the footprint of hurricane impacts is highly varied and dependent not only on wind speed, but also on hurricane size, on waves, and on rainfall. Water rose as high as 20 feet in some areas, portions of beach communities were washed away by high water and 30 to 40 foot waves, leaving remnant home foundations as identifiers to those returning to see what had happened. Some refused to leave and became part of the floating rubble. Yes it was a horrible recent event still fresh in our minds. Yet what are we doing, are we building back to the ways in the same locations as we had before Ike came, as we still try to do in many ways in New Orleans, Gulfport and Biloxi Mississippi after hurricane Katrina?

You see, no one wants to look at the future, especially when we have exactly what we want today. Ebenezer sure resisted looking forward hiding behind his stacks of money; in fact he never would have looked at his future if he had not been forced to through that wild, vivid dream! So the similarity I draw between my hurricanes and Charles Dickens' Ebenezer stops before hurricanes of the future! Few of us ever look forward at potential future hurricane disasters. Unfortunately, I cannot show you a future hurricane, but if I could perhaps I might rise to Dickens status in history. That is not going to happen and that is where the similarity stops. That critical ghost, the ghost of future hurricanes can never be shown to you, and I fear that because it cannot you will never be transformed! But I ask anyway, how can us scientists get through to all of you who rebuild after a hurricane? Hurricanes of the future will come again, that I can promise. When the next one comes and what its footprint looks like no one can say for sure. If only I were as clever and as ingenious as Charles Dickens perhaps, perhaps I might awaken you from your dream to live perilously on the beach, and to transform you to realize, like Ebenezer did after he saw his future, we are on borrowed time if we do not change our building practices!

Posted at 5:08 pm ET
February 5, 2009
Have you hugged your weatherman today?
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Jeff Mielcarz, Road Crew Host

Here's something you don't get to say everyday ... TODAY is National Weatherman/Weatherwoman day ... let's all rejoice and be glad. Have you hugged your weatherman today? I hope so! What a great week to randomly have Friday off ... this weatherman is going OUT tonight to celebrate! (Special thanks to the boss for that scheduling -- and I don't mean Bruce Springsteen. Speaking of Bruce, I don't know about you but my most rewound Super Bowl moment was not the Doritos ad, it was Bruce sliding into the camera guy at a speed of about Mach 1 ... he's nimble and quick like a fox I tell ya ... poor camera guy.)

Anyway before I leave ... Hey there everyone in the Sunshine State -- welcome to the big winter party we've been celebrating just about everywhere else throughout the lower 48 (except for you LA and you can stop rubbing it in now). The cold weather shield you tried to keep over your state shall protect you no longer (well at least for another 24 hours anyway depending on when you read this). IN fact how's this for something you don't get to say every February 5th ... believe it or not at 4am THIS morning it was the same temperature in Daytona Beach, FL as it was in Calgary ... that's right Calgary ... IN CANADA! (The temperature was 32 by the way for those keeping score at home or think they may be able to wrangle a free drink out of their friend with a trivia bit like that...I want credit for it though).

Here's one more for you a little closer to home to show that this latest cold front has gotten ALL the way through Florida. Cut Bank Montana was actually WARMER this morning at 4am than Miami, FL. Cut Bank clocked in at 45 degrees meanwhile Miami was struggling to stay in the 40s at 41 degrees. In fact the low temperature in Miami this morning bottomed out at 38 degrees, and to show how rare that is ... Miami has only recorded temperatures in the 30s THREE times in the last 10 years ... burr for them (meanwhile this is shorts and t shirt weather for people living in International Falls).

But as I alluded to above, it won't stay cold for long in Florida, or throughout most of the country for that matter. Some much deserved relief is coming your way for cities like Minneapolis and Chicago -- just in time for the weekend! It's like the January thaw decided to show up fashionably late by a couple of days. Have a great day everyone, the weekend is once again upon us!

Posted at 4:22 pm ET
Tornado FAQ
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Dr. Greg Forbes, Severe Weather Expert

Sometimes I get questions from students doing a science project. I recently got an excellent set from an 8th grade student in Michigan. I thought I'd share some of them, and my answers, with you. (FAQ = Frequently Asked Questions, by the way.)

1. Have you ever been through or close to a tornado?
A small, weak one went through my backyard while I was temporarily working in the Netherlands many years ago. It knocked down a tree. I was in the kitchen and the window started rattling. I looked out the window and saw this green blur. I hesitated for a second while I thought "if I didn't know where I was, I'd think that was a tornado." Then I scurried away from the window to safety. The Netherlands (Holland) isn't known for getting very many tornadoes. I did a damage survey of the tornado path by bicycle! A lot of people there commute to and from work by bike.

2. What are some of the biggest advancements in prediction technology that have helped determine whether a tornado will show up or not?
Doppler radar has greatly helped detect the presence of tornadoes and the rotating thunderstorms that often spawn them. Improved computer models of the atmosphere have helped us much more accurately hone in on areas where and when they might develop.

3. Would you consider tornadoes to be the most destructive storm overall?
At individual points, the strongest tornadoes contain more powerful winds than any other near-surface weather phenomenon. But tornado damage swaths are much smaller than those of hurricanes. So the remnants of hurricanes -- when they persist inland -- can really cause a huge cleanup and restoration problem. Ike's remnants in 2008 left a 200-mile-wide swath more than 1600 miles long from TX to AR to north NY. Until the January 2009 ice storm, Ike's remnants caused the greatest power outage in Kentucky history.

4. If you had to go through either a tornado or a hurricane, which would you choose and why?
If I was inland, away from water, I'd take the hurricane. The inland winds of a hurricane are usually less than in a strong tornado. If I was going to be in the storm surge area of a hurricane, I'd rather take my chances with a tornado. The power of surging water is greater than that of tornado winds. Neither is safe.

5. What can still be done to improve the prediction of tornadoes?
We could improve detection of tornadoes, especially reducing false alarms, by having radars spaced closer together so that we could see whether there was a wind circulation down near the ground. Sometimes the radars now are scanning well up into the clouds at locations far from the radar and see the rotating storm but are unable to tell for certain whether or not there is a tornado at the ground. This is because the beam tilts up slightly above the horizon, while the curving Earth's surface "drops out from under it." Some day we may be able, using computer models, to predict the weather right down to the tornado scale operationally.

6. What is the hardest thing about predicting where and when a tornado will show up?
On quite a few days not all the ingredients come together. So it may be unstable, but the winds aren't ideal for tornadoes. Or the winds may be ideal, but it isn't quite unstable enough for many strong thunderstorms that could spawn tornadoes. Those days are hard to judge the tradeoffs. On many days there is a warm layer aloft called a "cap" that may inhibit thunderstorms from forming. Other ingredients may be favorable on capped days, but thunderstorms may not form at all, or only in a part of the expected area. Most of the time we can tell that tornadoes will be possible in some portion of a state, but predicting which town will get hit is nearly impossible more than a half hour ahead of time.

Maybe you have some great questions, or a great answer to question 1. Let me know.

Posted at 2:13 am ET
February 2, 2009
Preoccupation with Hurricane Maximum Winds
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Dr. Steve Lyons, Tropical Weather Expert

I write this blog partly in frustration of seeing people (often through media reports) being preoccupied with a hurricane's maximum winds. Now don't get me wrong maximum winds are important for impacts at the immediate coastline, but they alone cannot be used to paint a clear picture of what coastal and inland impacts will be. Impacts include wind, waves, water rise and rainfall with a few tornadoes possibly mixed in! Maximum wind is directly responsible for wind damage the other impacts are more complex and some have little to do with landfall intensity. This is where the problem lies; people very often take action or are asked to take action based on that Saffir-Simpson scale classification for a specific hurricane. This has and this will get a lot of people in big trouble. The question you might ask is why?

First of all, many die in coastal and inland flooding rains and high coastal waves in a hurricane, neither has much to do with its landfall intensity! Next, even meteorologists at the National Hurricane Center do not know exactly what the winds are everywhere in a hurricane at any moment in time. Yes, we use many tools to get an estimate of what those winds might be at the time they are measured, but under sampling over vast data void oceans, changes in winds and the spatial distribution of them vary in accuracy depending on the sampling tools available for each hurricane at a specific location.

For example, far out in the open waters of the tropical Atlantic Ocean, we have satellite techniques to estimate maximum winds and that is about it. Ships scatter away from harm, RECON cannot go that far and conventional radar cannot "see" that far. Fortunately hurricanes don't hit anyone way out there. For your trivia, the average error in one satellite based intensity estimate (the Dvorak Technique) is about 13 mph. This is the better portion of a Saffir/Simpson category! Of course this error "estimate" is based on the premise that we know the true maximum wind, we do not! Satellite scatterometer winds cannot accurately measure winds stronger than about 75 mph nor can they measure them with any accuracy in heavy rain!

In most cases as a hurricane gets within about 500-800 miles of land Hurricane Hunters (either Air Force Reserves or NOAA) begin to fly into the hurricane and make a few traverses across the hurricane (most frequently at about 10,000 feet). RECON makes wind measurements at that level (rarely valid for surface/near surface winds) and sometimes deploys "dropsondes" that parachute to the ocean, measuring winds as they fall. For that instant in time and at that tiny location where the dropsonde falls there is a glimpse of truth blurred by the measurement error of that "sonde." This dropsonde location represents but a tiny fraction of 1% of the area of strong hurricane winds. RECON also tries to measure the minimum pressure in a hurricane, but often this is an estimate of surface pressure based on pressure measured directly at flight level. Surface pressure, with some uncertainty, can be used to "estimate" what the surface winds might be in a hurricane. The latest tool RECN has is a Stepped Frequency Microwave Radiometer (SFMR) device attached to the underside of the aircraft that shoots a microwave to the ocean, then listens for the return and indirectly translates that return into an estimate of surface wind. It does a pretty good job of it too. But it does so only if a plane is in the hurricane and only along relatively narrow swaths beneath the aircraft at an instant in time. Still this is a big improvement. By the time the plane goes back over the same area, if a hurricane is rapidly intensifying, winds can be very different that they were earlier. Still this is a very useful tool. But man this is getting irritating!

As a hurricane gets within about 90 miles of a coastline Doppler radar begins to measure winds in a hurricane. It measures the speed of the hurricane's wind blowing toward or away from the radar; it is possible that the strongest wind is blowing perpendicular to the radar where no wind measurement can be gotten. Due to Earth's curvature the typically used radar beam is never measuring wind at the ground; the beam rises steadily with distance from the radar. For example by the time the beam is about 90 miles from the radar it is about 9,000 feet above the ocean, near 2 miles above the surface. This doesn't give you much time to prepare if the hurricane is barreling toward you at 20 mph or more. Man this is getting really irritating!

As a hurricane moves through coastal waters it very often traverses through ocean buoys. But these buoys are sparsely placed and often strongest winds in the hurricane eyewall miss the buoy. When a buoy does measure a tiny portion of the eyewall that may cross over it, the question then becomes; how strong are the winds in other portions of the eyewall? There are only a few hours to a fraction of a day between when the coastal buoy measures wind and when the hurricane hits. Man this is getting extremely irritating!

We do have a number of surface or near surface wind measurement devices on land, but they do not continuously cover the coastline and very often strongest winds in the eyewall are not much more than narrow bands of high winds no more than 10 miles wide. Surface observations at the coast very often miss or appear to miss strongest winds. Some universities have begun to deploy a bunch of wind measurement devices near the coast just a day or even hours before a hurricane landfall in attempts to directly measure winds. This information is great if you can get it in real time. Unfortunately, if the hurricane veers slightly, strongest winds are missed.

Also, sometimes conventional wind measurement devices and those deployed at the last minute lose power and stop reporting or are destroyed if winds get strong enough. Of course the hurricane is already hitting now, there is zero preparation lead time. Man this is beyond irritating!

So after a hurricane hits we are left with damage at the coast to rummage through. And engineers are able to "estimate" how strong winds must have been in order to do the damage to structures of known building strength that they find. But was the damage they find caused by sustained winds or wind gusts, or perhaps a renegade downburst or tornado? These estimates are "after" the event has occurred, not much help to you! Man it is all just an irritating estimate isn't it!

So when you see media yelling and screaming that the CAT 2 (on the Saffir/Simpson hurricane scale) has now strengthened and has reached deadly major hurricane strength (CAT 3), watch The Weather Channel. I will be showing the graphic below that shows nothing more than manmade cut offs along a "continuous" damage curve. This graph also tells us for example that the difference in wind damage potential between the strongest of CAT 2's and the weakest of CAT 3's is extremely small, while for example the difference in wind damage potential between the weakest of CAT 3's and the strongest of CAT 3's is large!

Now you know that the quoted maximum hurricane wind is a best estimate based on everything the meteorologist can use to estimate it, and it often carries much uncertainty with it. The good news is the estimate of maximum wind is more certain than it was 20 or 30 or 50 years ago. But, it is an estimate, and the true wind could easily be different enough to shift it up or shift it down into a different Saffir/Simpson category depending on where the "estimate" falls on the above curve. You are best off assuming the worst and preparing for it, even though only a very small portion of the immediate coastline will see such winds and corresponding wind damage. The bottom line, there is not only uncertainty in the track (both direction and timing) but also in knowing the offshore and the landfall intensity. So pay attention to the impacts a tropical storm or hurricane can cause and less on its "estimated" strength and you will make wiser decisions to keep you and your home safe.

Posted at 5:37 pm ET
Punxsutawney, Here We Come!
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Stephanie Abrams, On-Camera Meteorologist

I'm heading to Punxsutawney, PA, to see if Phil will forecast more winter or if spring is around the corner. If Phil sees his shadow then there are six more weeks of winter, if not then spring is soon to come. It is my first trip, but I'm curious to know if you have ever gone to see Phil's prognostication. If you have them, send us pictures and video and tell us about your experience. If we get them in time we might be able to show them on Abrams and Bettes and Evening Edition Monday, February 2 from 7-9pm when I report live from Punxsutawney. Since the blogs don't get updated frequently, send us your stuff to abramsandbettes@weather.com. If you have never been, tell us if it is something you would like to do and why.

Posted at 9:52 am ET
February 1, 2009
Ike, ice, and the Colossal Groundhogzilla Megastorm
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Stu Ostro, Senior Meteorologist

[Updates follow original entry.]

Thanks to the efforts of many who are working to get things back to some semblance of normalcy, a slow road to recovery continues in the wake of the extreme ice storm of January '09 after it took seemingly forever to end and didn't actually do so before phenomenal amounts of glaze built up on trees and the electrical infrastructure.

The number of customers without power in Kentucky reached the highest number ever attained (>600K), the previous record having been set just a few months ago by the remnants of Hurricane Ike. A statement by the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas indicates that 11,800 utility poles were broken (that's the number of poles, not wires!), with the company's vice president of systems services saying, "The severity of the outages created by the ice is indescribable," and in Kentucky there was even a report of at least one large steel transmission tower being toppled by the ice. Other tales of severe impacts abound from those and nearby states.

A big difference between Ike and the ice storm is that, as Bill Murray said in the movie Groundhog Day (time to watch that again tomorrow!), "It's cold outside." High temperatures from the upper Texas coast to the eastern Great Lakes in the days after Ike were in the 70s, whereas throughout the main ice area in the days after that storm they were in the 20s and low 30s. That led to temperatures in people's homes and businesses without power also plummeting rather than being at comfortable levels.

In addition it has meant that the ice, in some areas supplemented by a storm-ending snowfall, didn't melt much at first, making for continued slow-going on roads for recovery vehicles. Then temperatures rebounded, which is a good thing, right? Yes, although per statements such as this one last night from the National Weather Service, that then created its own danger:



While that sort of thing wasn't a problem after Ike, there is a stunning similarity between the two events.

Here is the wind damage swath left by the hurricane and its remnants:

The area which experienced the most significant damage from the ice storm (there were spotty problems elswhere but this is where the worst occurred):

Now the latter overlaid on the former:

What a remarkable overlap in the location and orientation of the swaths in that part of the country!

Then, with people reeling from a disaster, the weather world last week became abuzz with prophecies of not only another major storm, but one which, speaking of Groundhog Day, was even dubbed "Groundhogzilla" by some quarters at one point with the presumption that atmospheric mayhem would be unfolding on February 2, and a warning that the storm could be "colossal." Even more disconcerting was talk about it coming close to rivaling the March 1993 Superstorm in scope and intensity.

And so as not to just cast stones from a glass house, yes, I heard on The Weather Channel a reference to the coming "megastorm."

I can't offhand recall such hyperbole for a non-tropical cyclone since that for the Patriots' Day storm in April 2007.

That doesn't mean one should never hype a weather event. I engage in my share of it, for example prior to the ice storm last week, the flooding in western Washington last month, and before and after Ike's landfall last year. The point is that one must try to be judicious, picking and choosing the right events at the right time. Timing is everything, and oftentimes the weather hype which crosses the line into unwarranted sensationalism does so because of prematurely prognosticating and pontificating, rather than at that juncture communicating an appropriate amount of uncertainty.

I know from my own transgressions -- been there, done that. A particularly unpleasant moment was back in March 2001, when I jumped the gun and on the bandwagon at that time by believing the computer model consensus and being supportive of TWC hyping the daylights out of the expected effects from a storm which would not yet be born for several days.

The lesson learned the hard way was that just because all the computer models showed the same thing, that didn't make it so. There ultimately was a big storm in New England, but that left tens of millions of people from NYC to DC feeling they had just heard a lot of wolves cry. It's not like I was the only one -- that event was one of the key inspirations for a National Academies workshop and report on communicating uncertainty in weather and climate information -- but I swore I would do everything I could to avoid facilitating that sort of fiasco again.

Thus what I was seeing written in the blogosphere and hearing said on TWC finally pushed me over the edge Thursday night to send this email to The Weather Channel operational staff (both the meteorology and journalism sides):



Why all the wiggin' last week? Well, there were both machine and human aspects. In addition to forgetting the lessons of what in March '01 TWC had dubbed the "March Lion," perhaps people were also not remembering how extraordinary the March '93 Superstorm and its ingredients & effects were. Nevertheless, the machines (models) were advertising a system of the same overall species as the Superstorm, but a much smaller and weaker animal. However, it turns out even that was wrong.

The problem, illustrative of the limits of predictability even in this modern technological era given the atmospheric complexity and observational constraints, was that for a colossal megastorm to develop and whack much of the eastern quarter of the country from south to north there'd have to be a perfectly-timed and placed interaction of disturbances in the northern and southern branches of the jet stream, a key feature being an upper-level disturbance still thousands of miles away over the Aleutians and North Pacific.

This upper-level numerical model forecast (NCEP's Global Forecast System, or GFS model) from Thursday afternoon for tomorrow (Monday) evening shows a wicked wind core in the northern branch plunging due south toward the Gulf Coast, and interacting with another potent surge in the southern branch.

Now here's the latest forecast by the same model for the same time. That northern branch jet on the backside of the trough axis is not projected to be as strong and more importantly is oriented differently, with the whole trough being farther east and not nearly as sharp. Although the pattern overall is similar, "close" counts, as they say, in horseshoes and a few other things but not with the intricate details of stormy phasing of wintertime jet stream disturbances.

Even at this hour there's uncertainty in the details of how much snow will fall and exactly where, with the main event still being two days away. One scenario would result in a very minor outcome; another would mean something a bit more significant in the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic.

Even if it's the latter, not only won't this storm be in the same ballpark or league as the March 1993 one, but to reach the tell-the-grandchildren echelon (for which it would have to really overachieve given the latest model trends today), it has a lot of competition from past Northeast snowstorms just during the early-middle part of this month. As I wrote about a couple of Februaries ago, the period from February 3 to 19 is notorious for snowy wildness in that part of the U.S. For that matter, even the last vestiges of the legitimately mega ice storm brought up to 20" of snow in New England!


The verdict? Close but no cigar. There are indeed potent systems (circled) over the Atlantic Ocean and Ohio Valley, but the two are disconnected. So while bursts of snow are currently in progress in places such as Plymouth, Massachusetts and Indianapolis, these two disturbances needed to be commingling for the BLOTA (blizzard of the age) to have struck the eastern United States. Instead, the first storm will be a healthy one for portions of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and the second disturbance will swing across the Mid-Atlantic and instigate the development of another cyclone -- over the ocean and headed toward Newfoundland and Labrador.


This was a fascinating case from beginning to end. It's a good thing those two systems I noted in yesterday's update were discombobulated, because both were indeed potent and the western one was really squirrelly. Most of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast had very modest accumulations, but a small-scale feature flared up and got stuck for awhile over southeast PA and southern NJ, leading to a couple of tiny bulls-eyes of heavy snowfall, much like a cluster of thunderstorms can bring locally heavier rainfall amounts in the summer. One was near Lancaster and another from the southwest portion of Philadelphia to Glassboro. The radar image above shows the peak at 11 pm EST Tuesday.

There was also an intense lake-effect band coming off of Lake Michigan into northwest Indiana.

Posted at 2:10 pm ET
January 30, 2009
Are you ready for some football?
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Jeff Mielcarz, Road Crew Host

Are you ready for some football? Oh man ... it's kind of sad that this is the last time I'm going to be able to type or say these words for a while! Well ARE YA? PUNK? (I'll add a little Dirty Harry to make it sound even cooler.)

Happy Super Bowl weekend everyone! Our good friend Mike Sidel has been enjoying rainy Tampa, FL all day Friday ... but good news is on the way ... I think The Beatles said it best (and in harmony) when they said "Here Comes The Sun" -- (all together everyone) "and I say it's all right". Anyway, Saturday and Sunday are going to offer some beautiful football weather (and even better tailgating weather if you are actually lucky enough to be down there for the big show).

We're calling for temps in the low 60s on Saturday and if luck holds on our sides we'll flirt with 70 with a whole BUNCH of sun on Sunday! So ... I know this is a weather blog and all ... but since the Super Bowl is generally the most watched television event of the year (next to Evening Edition of course) lets have your thoughts.

What is your favorite part of the big game? (Many would say the ueber expensive commercials ... hopefully at least 4 of them star Peyton Manning.) Do you secretly hope for rain just to make things more interesting? (I know I do.) And finally -- what's your call ... by the time these comments get posted we'll know the score ... so whatever you submit here ... you're going to be held to it. Do you put your money (well don't do that unless you're in Vegas I don't want to get in trouble with HR) on the dominant defensive of the Pittsburgh Steelers or are you pulling for the Cinderella story of Kurt Warner's Arizona Cardinals? Me, I'm just counting down the minutes to draft day ... because as of midnight Monday ... everyone is 0-0 and it's a while new season. Have a great weekend everyone!

Oh and for my good friend Johnny D downstairs ... I'll even watch Bruce at halftime ... but I'm not happy about it.

Posted at 3:50 pm ET
January 28, 2009
Radar Red Herrings
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Dr. Greg Forbes, Severe Weather Expert

Sometimes just looking at the lowest-level scan from radar can be misleading, unless you put what you see into the right context. If you looked at the red cores and shapes of the examples I show below, you might have thought that these were strong thunderstorms. Not!

This first example is part of the current radar from west-central South Carolina as I write this on the afternoon of Wednesday January 28. It's a line of heavy convective precipitation -- showers or thunderstorms -- along a cold front. Columbia, SC is at the dot labeled CAE (radar imagery using GRLevelX). But are these just heavy showers or strong thunderstorms?

To answer that question, let's look at a slice through one of these echoes to see how high it extends -- a cross-section, shown below. West is at the left, east at the right, and upward indicates altitude. The 10,000 and 20,000 feet heights are labeled. The line at about 13,000 feet indicates the freezing level (0C), while the red line indicates the altitude where temperature drops to -20C, at about 22,000 feet at this location on this occasion.

So what does this cross-section tell us? First, this is not a tall storm. Its weakest part extends only to the freezing level, while its most intense core is below 5,000 feet. Furthermore, research has shown that storms don't normally develop lightning and become thunderstorms unless the green-level of radar return (30dBZ or more in radar terminology) extends to and above the -10C level. That level would be at about 17,000 feet. The green echo doesn't even reach the freezing level in this case. So this "storm" is just a shower, not a thunderstorm. It doesn't have enough precipitation at temperatures colder than -10C to produce lightning. The intensity of the return is accurate, though, so there is a brief shower of heavy rain.

Another example (using WeatherTap imagery) is from about 7:30 PM on Monday evening January 26. A band of echoes with red cores can be seen east-northeast of Fort Leonard Wood, MO toward the Illinois state line. Are these thunderstorms?

In this case it helps a lot to know the situation. This is part of a major winter storm with lots of sleet and freezing rain. These kinds of precipitation form as moist air is lifted over a sub-freezing layer near the surface -- as shown below (map courtesy of the National Center for Atmospheric Research). Air temperatures in the near-surface layer are 17 to 27F in southern MO. I've drawn a red line on the map to show the approximate location of those strong radar echoes.

At the left end of that red line, the weather station (Fort Leonard Wood, TBN) is reporting sleet (triangle with a dot inside). Other stations nearby (VIH and UNO) are reporting freezing rain (symbol like an S turned on its side). This echo appears strong because it's what we call a "bright band." It indicates that the radar has intersected the melting level where snow is beginning to melt into rain. The snow is melting as it falls into a warm layer aloft, just above the cold near-surface layer. The edges of the snowflakes get wet, "tricking" the radar into thinking it's a huge raindrop. Once the snowflakes fully melted, the drops were then freezing as they fell into the cold layer, turning into ice pellets (sleet) before reaching the ground. The drops that didn't turn into sleet froze into glaze ice when hitting the ground or other objects (freezing rain). In this case, the precipitation isn't as heavy as the radar seems to indicate, because it isn't in drops as big as the radar "thinks."

This has been a huge and major ice storm, with hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses left without power because of the freezing rain. I hope you didn't lose power and -- if you did -- not for too long!

Posted at 4:09 pm ET
January 26, 2009
Scary combination
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Stu Ostro, Senior Meteorologist

[Updates follow original entry; latest as of 9pm EST Wednesday January 28.]

Last week I was at the Steamboat Weather Summit in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where I gave a talk. Jennifer Rukavina, chief meteorologist at WPSD Local 6, the NBC television affiliate in Paducah, Kentucky, mentioned my presentation in her blog last week due to her interest in connections between climate and weather; now in turn I have a heightened interest in what's going on weatherwise this evening in her part of the country. In fact my eyes are buggin' out of my head in looking at the meteorological setup.

The situation is relatively subtle in the sense that there's not a whopper cyclone -- a really strong surface low pressure system and gigantic upper-level trough -- but often that's the case with ice storms and sometimes tornadoes (a classic example being the 1994 Palm Sunday outbreak), in which just the right (wrong) combination of ingredients comes together. Today they're present in droves.

The weather map below shows an arctic high pressure system sprawling across a wide stretch of the country. Although it's not as strong as the frigid one earlier this month, it's supplying "fresh" cold air, a term meteorologists use to differentiate that which is just arriving, as opposed to "stale" cold air which has been around for awhile and is easily dislodged.

This detailed surface map shows the cold air draining in from the northeast Monday afternoon. The red numbers represent temperatures, and I've drawn in a 32-degree line. Note where it is. The western end of the line will press much farther south overnight in Oklahoma and Texas, and the eastern end will nudge a bit farther south.

But compared to that situation at the Earth's surface, this computer model forecast for temperatures a few thousand feet up in the atmosphere shows the freezing line Tuesday morning to be relatively far to the north!

[Image source: wright-weather.com]

That means that snowflakes will be falling through an above-freezing layer and melting into raindrops before re-entering air whose temperature is below 32 degrees, which will lead to freezing rain and sleet.

A pop quiz: what's the difference between those two phenomena?

The answer after we get to the third ingredient, which is oodles of moisture, as illustrated by the green colors in this "precipitable water" forecast for Tuesday morning.

So we have an icy recipe plus lots of precipitation that will get wrung out of the atmosphere, and with a couple of waves of it coming this is also going to be a long-duration event.

What's scary is this combination of so much precipitation, lasting for so long, with the atmospheric temperature profile described above.

The tricky part will be exactly how much in any given location falls as sleet (that's what goes ping-ping) vs. freezing rain (the nasty stuff which builds up on trees and power lines rather than bouncing off, and coats roads and sidewalks with a glaze of ice).

The places that get the largest amounts of precipitation, and of which most is freezing rain, will have a serious ice storm capable of producing power outages which are widespread and last for days; the greatest threat is in a swath from northern Arkansas into Kentucky and areas immediately surrounding that zone. This afternoon there have been reports of vehicular accidents and spotty power outages in Oklahoma, and already this weather system has unfortunately turned deadly. The AP is reporting that a truck driver was killed when his semi cab skidded off an icy stretch of the Turner Turnpike near Chandler.

Just north of the freezing rain will come a whole bunch of sleet, and then a band of snow north of that. Then whole mess will push into the Northeast on Wednesday, though eventually the amount of freezing rain should become less as the storm heads toward New England.

Your latest local forecast can always be found here on weather.com by typing in your location name or zip code, and for those in the path of this storm and facing the potential for power outages, there's a good checklist for safety and preparedness on the Centers for Disease Control website.

Note that candles are a fire hazard and thus battery-powered flashlights and lanterns are preferred; space heaters must be used properly; and never use an electric generator indoors, inside the garage, or near the air intake of your home because of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.


The radar images below show the rapid expansion of precipitation (not colorized to differentiate between type) since I posted the original entry ... Many reports of sleet and freezing rain coming in; here are a few of the more notable ones ...Thus begins the long ordeal ...

958 PM 1/26/2009

1041 PM 1/26/2009


It's getting ugly, with thousands of customers without power from northern Arkansas across southeast Missouri and into Kentucky, and slews of vehicular accidents reported since last night.

Here's a sample recent notable report, from the aforementioned Paducah:

611 AM CST TUE JAN 27 2009


There are also reports of up to 2-3" of ice in the higher elevations of northern Arkansas, which would be stunning if it was all from freezing rain, but it's unclear whether some of the 2"+ was from sleet accumulation rather than accretion of glaze.

If there's any good news, it's that temperatures on the southern fringe of the overnight icing area in Arkansas, northwest Tennessee, and southern Kentucky have risen to near 32F, so perhaps with the nearly-February sun in such a southern latitude, that'll allow for less icing and more melting today with some of the sun's energy making it through the clouds. And already the roads (as opposed to trees & power lines) in this slightly warmer zone are not in as bad shape as a bit farther north.

Otherwise, though, the news is not good, as the storm is amazingly just getting started, with lightning and thunder from southwest Oklahoma to southwest Missouri indicative of the beginning of the next phase ...

This is something you [fortunately] don't see every day: a Civil Emergency Message.

208 PM CST TUE JAN 27 2009





Mercifully the freezing rain is over there, as the precip changes to sleet and snow before ending, but it continues farther east, in fact all the way to the Delmarva Peninsula!

I've outlined on the radar image below the current looong swath of freezing rain based on surface observations as best as I can tell, rather than relying on the winter weather radar algorithm (which doesn't differentiate between sleet and freezing rain anyway). Within that area are a few spotty locations reporting sleet, but most of the zone is experiencing freezing rain.


This map of Tuesday's high temperatures illustrates the contrast helping to fuel the storm, such as 74 in Shreveport right next to the 37 degree max temp in Texarkana, and note the 96 at the southwest corner of the map in Monclova, Mexico.

I'd ask for folks affected by the worst of the icing to leave a comment and let us know what conditions are like in your area, but hundreds of thousands of people are without power and thus not able to do so. This ice storm brings back memories of back-to-back severe ones in Arkansas and thereabouts on December 12-13 and 25-26 in 2000, although the 2009 one is more widespread across the country.


To add insult to injury from this weather system ...

Near Paducah, where a historic ice storm is in progress, there is now an expanding number of flash flood warnings in effect (green outlines), illustrative of the extraordinary combination of copious amounts of moisture continuously being squeezed out of the atmosphere along with an equally persistent vertical temperature profile conducive to freezing rain.


Although this storm will have a lot by which to be remembered, in picking one photo to capture the essence of its legacy this does a pretty good job. It's one thing for a power line to come down or a tree branch onto it, but that's a heckuva freezing rain accretion (as opposed to a strong wind) to bring down whole utility poles!

[Mountain Home, Arkansas - AP Photo / The Baxter Bulletin, Kevin Pieper]

Posted at 5:32 pm ET
Why I Love Winter Week
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Jeff Mielcarz, Road Crew Host

So we're a little over a month into winter and did you know that both Washington, DC and Baltimore, MD have not seen an inch of measurable snow yet? Well guess what, just in time for "Why I Love Winter Week" here on The Weather Channel ... there's a pretty decent chance they can pick up an inch or two before the winter storm system moving into the area changes over to a mix.

And speaking of mixed precipitation ... a very dangerous situation is setting up for portions of the Ohio Valley and eventually into the Hudson/CT Valley as we move through the next 24-36 hours. Saying that travel may be dangerous could be the biggest understatement uttered thus far in 2009 ... so please be careful everyone and stay tuned for all the breaking information on our latest winter storm as it marches across the country.

Posted at 1:43 pm ET
January 23, 2009
Madagascar and Tropical Cyclone Impacts
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Dr. Steve Lyons, Tropical Weather Expert

There are the Antaifasy, called the people of the sands, the Antankarana, called those of the rocks, and the Antrandroy or people of the thorns, just to name a few. They reside in the tropical southwest Indian Ocean on a large island, which to most of the world is considered very poor (the annual average income is approximately $200 U.S.)! Some of us pay more than that just on cable and cell phone costs each month. The island country of Madagascar is a large elongated island measuring about 950 miles from its north tip to south tip and about 350 miles at its widest part near its center. Shaped like a large boat pointed toward north and centered near 20 degrees south latitude and 46 degrees east longitude, off the southeast coast of Africa, it is home to an estimated 20 million people and an untold number of unique animals, plants and birds.

Unfortunately, Madagascar basically acts as a wall or back-stop to tropical cyclones (tropical storms and hurricanes) that tend to move from east to west across the tropical south Indian Ocean from October to early May. Some curve south before reaching Madagascar, while others move directly over it or curve south across or very near it. Some residents there probably think Madagascar acts like a magnet for tropical cyclones, but it is not much more than in a bad geographical position, it lays along the climatological tropical storm tracks. As an example if we look at the past ten years, Madagascar has been affected by 38 tropical cyclones! In the same period of time the entire U.S. has seen some kind of impacts from about 46 tropical storms or hurricanes, and these ten years have been one of the more active periods on record for the United States.

What really exacerbates the problem for Madagascar is the fact that it is mountainous; its highest peak is mount Maromokotro which is about 9,436 with land ascending to it from the coast about 140 miles away! The valleys are low and often areas where rice is grown and cultivated along rivers and streams. What frequently happens in Madagascar when a tropical cyclone comes is it slows, and changes direction from a westerly motion to a southerly motion. This "recurving" as we hurricane meteorologists call it, is very often a time when the forward motion of the tropical cyclone temporarily slows. A slow moving tropical cyclone moving over or near a mountainous island is notorious for causing huge rainfall, flooding, flash flooding, mudslides, landslides and loss of life. These tropical cyclone rains can and have covered most portions of Madagascar in many events resulting in not only local wind damage where they strike but major rainfall flooding whether the tropical cyclone hits land or not. The outcome is loss of life and very often thousands or tens of thousands left homeless. The poorest are most affected as their homes are often not much more than leaning walls of hastily hoisted boards with an unattached sheet metal roof.

Today I am reminded of Madagascar as it begins to recover from two tropical cyclones within the past week (see image below). Tropical cyclone Eric near its southeast coast (killed at lest one injured at least 27 and left at least 992 homeless), it missed Madagascar and was weak. Nearly at the same time a direct hit from what we would call CAT 3 hurricane Fanele (winds gusts estimated to be near 130 mph) struck Madagascar's west coast. Damage, injuries, and deaths are unknown at this time.

Let us all be reminded of those who frequently are affected by big weather disasters, live in poverty and for the most part have to take personal responsibility for themselves during and long after the disaster. We should remember them so that we can be thankful for state and federal relief after a hurricane, and so that we always remember to be honest, fair and not take advantage of anyone, any company or any government agency that comes to our aid after the big one hits home!

Posted at 5:28 pm ET
January 21, 2009
Agents of the Cold; Milder Ahead
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Dr. Greg Forbes, Severe Weather Expert

Much of the eastern two-thirds of the country has been enduring cold temperatures lately, bitter cold in some spots. This has occurred as the cold pool of air that built up in Alaska and Canada drained into the United States. I thought that I'd show you a few snapshots of the weather features associated with this cold pattern -- "agents of the cold", if you will. I'll end by showing that the pattern will change into a milder one in a few days.

During the recent cold spell, I saw temperatures reach -47F at Garrison, ND; -46F at Embarrass, MN; -39F at Berlin NY, and -50F at Big Black River, ME; plus a lot of other places that I didn't list. That Maine value is under consideration to become officially the coldest temperature on record in that state.

One of the "agents" of cold weather is a strong high pressure system. The cold air mass in Canada and Alaska, with dense air, has high pressure. Here's a strong one on the morning of January 16, dominating the eastern half of the continental U.S.

Another "agent of the cold" is a flow above the surface from the north or northwest. This "steering flow" pushes those high pressure systems out of Canada and into the United States. The map below is what that steering flow looked like at around 18,000 feet at the same time as the surface map above. Look at all those wind flags heading southeastward into North Dakota and Minnesota, pushing the surface high pressure to become centered over southern Illinois. These winds are to the west of the upper-air trough over northeastern Canada and southward to the Gulf Coast states. With temperatures of -52C near James Bay, this was one of the coldest air masses aloft that I've ever seen over this region.

The upper-air pattern has a tendency to take on a huge roller coaster pattern in situations like this. Notice that high pressure area just offshore of Oregon. Sinking, warming air associated with this high actually gave some daily record warm temperatures over southern California.

Leap forward in time to the morning of January 21, below. Now the flow aloft is driving sub-freezing temperatures all the way into northern Florida as I write this, where a hard freeze is expected. But the upper-air ridge has begun to push eastward into the Rockies, beginning to bring about a significant change in the weather pattern.

Now jump ahead to one forecast for the evening of January 24th, below. In this color version of the maps above, winds are blowing mostly from west to east parallel to the white contours. This "zonal flow" (predominant west to east flow) at least temporarily ends the steering pattern that drove cold Artic air deep into the United States.

This more zonal pattern results in milder temperatures -- especially for the southern half of the United States. It might also increase the chances for severe thunderstorms and tornadoes during the last week of January and early February. Between January 8 and January 21, with very cold air over most of the United States, that kind of threat was very low. There were just 4 total reports of severe storms -- a couple of tornadoes in MS and AL on January 10 and severe thunderstorm reports in Florida on January 13 and 19.

Last February 5, the United States had its largest tornado outbreak of the year and deadliest outbreak in over 20 years -- the Super Tuesday outbreak. Let's hope this pattern shift won't deliver anything nearly that bad this year.

Posted at 11:21 pm ET
Do you love Winter?
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Jeff Mielcarz, Road Crew Host

Well hello again, I didn't see you there ... come on in and sit with me by the fire which I've had to get to raging proportions because it's that special time of year again ... winter! How many people have asked you over the past few weeks if it's "cold enough for ya"? Is it cold enough for me? Chances are ... if I'm three layers deep walking down the street with my face wrapped up as if I was planning on spending the next 1,000 years under an Egyptian pyramid ... then yes ... its cold enough for me! So on the surface of this first paragraph you may be thinking ... wow ... he really just hates this time of year. Well don't worry ... I'm getting to the point, it just takes me a little while and a couple of cups (mugs ... giant mugs) of coffee to get rollin!

Climatologically speaking the coldest week of the year comes in early January so what better time to celebrate "Why I Love Winter Week" here at The Weather Channel. Whether winter is your favorite season or not, chances are you at least have to have some fond memories of the season. I feel like you and I have a pretty good relationship and I don't want to ruin that by lying to your face ... so I'll be straight up with you ... winter ... clearly not my favorite season. In fact if you are a faithful Weather Channel devotee you already know my favorite season from a spot we ran countless times last year. But the great thing about winter is that every season offers something for everyone and since I'm a Connecticut native I've got some great memories from the winter months.

I'm sure every kid can relate to this (even adults ... especially if you are teachers like my parents)...two words...SNOW DAY! I remember being a kid watching The Weather Channel (and that's not just me towing the company line mind you ... John Hope was the MAN!) The night before meteorologists were predicting a snowstorm was almost as exciting as waiting for Santa to come down the chimney. I would try to study the maps the best my 2nd grade mind could comprehend and I'd take the weatherman's (or weatherwoman's) word when I couldn't understand why some storms would develop and others wouldn't.

Barely able to sleep, I would wait for the first snowflake to fall and hope with all my childhood hope that a blizzard would be on our hands come first light. Since my parents were teachers they were part of this crazy "snow chain" thing and when that phone rang at about 5:30AM when it was still dark outside ... I JUST KNEW we had a winner on our hands ... NO SCHOOL!! I get excited just thinking back ... snowman building ... sledding and unfortunately (thanks dad) shoveling. But those were the days ... when you didn't have to worry about financial bailouts ... you just looked forward to grabbing that sled to hurl as uncomfortably fast as possible down the hill. That's what weather did for me as a kid, provided a wonderful escape ... because snow wasn't something you saw EVERY day in CT ... weather could single-handedly change a mood and provide excitement! And that's why I still in the back of my mind love winter! (Even though as I grew older I decided I liked white sandy beaches better ... they provide escape in a different way.)

So with "Why I Love Winter Week" starting January 25th ... we asked some of your favorite on camera meteorologists why THEY love winter.

Stephanie Abrams: I was born and raised in Florida, which should answer the question if "I Love or Hate Winter." I don't like to use the word "hate," but I do prefer the warmth over the snow and temperatures above 70! (read more on Stephanie's bio page)

Mike Bettes: My relationship with winter is a love/hate one. On one hand, I love the look of a fresh fallen snow on a cold winter day and I really enjoy(even as an adult) skiing, sled riding, and a good snowball fight! On the other hand, there are a lot of reasons not to like winter. I despise shoveling and snowblowing. (read more on Mike's bio page)

Vivian Brown: What I love about winter is the longer nights... I've always been a night person and I love the fact that the sun sets earlier this time of year. What I hate about winter is the COLD. (read more on Vivian's bio page)

Jen Carfagno: It truly is a love/hate relationship with me when it comes to winter. My friends, family, and First Outlook viewers know my bias towards warmer weather. (read more on Jen's bio page)

Kelly Cass: Being able to change my wardrobe! I love pulling out my favorite sweaters and coats that I haven't worn in a while. Comfort food! I love a good bowl of hot soup and grilled cheese. (read more on Kelly's bio page)

Betty Davis: Ice storms, snow storms, sub-zero temperatures, all reasons to love winter, right? Or maybe not! I love winter because of the fabulous fashions we get to wear! (read more on Betty's bio page)

Paul Goodloe: I love winter because there is nothing more peaceful than watching 2 feet of fresh powder billow around your snowboard as you make first tracks down a ski run. (read more on Paul's bio page)

Ryan Goswick: I have mixed feelings about winter. I love snow!! Probably because I grew up in the Southeast. When we had a few flurries it was a holiday from school. (read more on Ryan's bio page)

Rich Johnson: I love seeing the chance of getting snow in Atlanta. It's fun to play in the snow with my kids and dog! (read more on Rich's bio page)

Dr. Steve Lyons: I love winter for a few reasons. First I know no one in the U.S. is going to suffer from the impacts of a hurricane for a while. I love winter because I spend some time snow skiing with my family in the mountains of New Mexico in some years. (read more on Dr. Lyon's bio page)

Mark Mancuso: I love Winter for the Arctic High Pressures, Bluebird Days, Static Electricity, Skiing, Ice Skating, Hockey, Hot Chocolate, Chicken Noodle Soup, Nor'Easters and Snow Squalls. (read more on Mark's bio page)

Nicole Mitchell: I love winter for the snow! Being from Minnesota, I grew up enjoying all sorts of winter activities: skating, sledding, cross-country skiing, etc. (read more on Nicole's bio page)

Samantha Mohr: Powder, powder, and more powder! There is nothing better than the first run of the day on fresh powder. Right after a winter storm passes and the wind calms it can be so quiet...feels as though you are in Mother Nature's sanctuary... so serene. (read more on Samantha's bio page)

Kim Perez: Not because of the cold!! I love the Fall and Winter fashion! Sweaters, jackets and boots are so much fun! (read more on Kim's bio page)

Heather Tesch: Honestly, winter is not my favorite month. I prefer warmer weather. However, I do really enjoy getting a short but intense taste of it each year. (read more on Heather's bio page)

But forget US for a minute (even though we thank you a million times over for watching us do what we do) ... why do YOU love winter?! Post your responses here...and as always patient reader (I'm still trying to learn brevity), thanks for reading.

Posted at 5:13 pm ET
January 20, 2009
Meteorologist Saves Obama's Life
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Mike Bettes, On-Camera Meteorologist

If I've learned anything about Barack Obama over the past year, it is that he is an excellent student of history. Having said that, I'd like to send some weather history his way in hopes of saving his life. Mr. President, don't make the same mistake that President William Henry Harrison made during his inauguration in 1841. It was a cold and windy day when he was sworn in. He rode his horse to and from the ceremony and did NOT wear a coat or hat. He then proceeded to give a 1 hour 40 minute speech. Guess what? He got a cold and then got pneumonia from the lingering cold and died a month later.

I realize that we've made some progress in weather forecasting over the past 168 years, and we know what the weather will be Tuesday, but an outdoor inauguration in sub-freezing weather can be quite unpleasant. Mr. Obama, I don't want to sound like your mother, but please wear a coat, hat, and gloves. You'll be happy you did and decrease your odds tremendously of getting pneumonia. Maybe one day we'll meet and you'll give me some big honor for saving your life.

Posted at 9:53 am ET
January 16, 2009
Talk about a roller coaster ride!
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Jeff Mielcarz, Road Crew Host

Hey hey hey hey everyone ... let's try this back patting thing again ... but first for my dear friend Mark from last Friday ... let's spend a couple of minutes warming up those shoulders by doing some shoulder circles. OK all warmed up? Great. Extend arm, turn palm of hand 180 degrees, cross chest, and here we go ... pat yourself on back ... welcome to another weekend. (I myself am working tomorrow rocking some broadband forecasts so if this indeed is not the start to your weekend ... I feel your pain, we'll have our own private welcome to the weekend ceremony tomorrow).

What a long strange week its been, we've been shattering records left and right. But while the "Arctic Blast" has been getting all the attention (and lets have a special round of applause for Jim Cantore's fuzzy hat on Evening Edition), we've been shattering not only all time cold records, but out west we are breaking record highs as well!

To put things into perspective and because we want to keep this entry short and sweet lets just talk extremes because this is just awesome stuff. On Thursday January 15th, the low in Bismarck, ND was -44 degrees, while the high in Los Angeles, CA was 85. THAT'S A 129 DEGREE DIFFERENCE over 1,600 miles by car!

And this just in as I'm writing this: At 10am eastern on Friday January 16th the temperature in Pensacola, FL is the same as it is in Fairbanks, AK at 31 degrees. Here's the key though, when you factor in the wind ... it FEELS ten degrees colder in Florida this morning. The wind chill in Pensacola (with winds out of the North at 14 miles per hour) is 21 degrees, while Fairbanks has calm winds so it actually feels like the actual air temperature at 31. (Unfortunately it appears this wasn't the best couple of days to vacation in the sunshine state I hate to tell ya.)

Speaking of Alaska -- check out this roller coaster ride they've been on the past week:

One other way to look at this ... their low temperature LAST Wednesday (January 7) was -46, while their high this PAST Wednesday (January 14) was 44. That's a 90 degree swing in one week!

Anyway, relief is on the way for now. Fargo, International Falls, Minneapolis, and Duluth went below zero on Monday the 12th and should come above zero sometime this evening (Friday the 16th) and should stay above zero overnight. (Thanks to Mark Ressler for that last minute tidbit.) This area has been below zero longest with the current arctic outbreak.

So this brings me to this, if you live in International Falls, I'm sure you've heard from friends and family once or twice "WHAT ARE YOU NUTS"? So, 1) how do you answer those critics and 2) if you live anywhere where you regularly have to plug your car in to make sure it doesn't freeze up, what are some of the creative ways you get through the winter with your sanity.

We've got a special week coming up on the horizon called "Why I Love Winter Week", so how about you tell me what some of your favorite things about the winter and some creative ways you deal with the cold (I.e. -- sitting around the fire inside with family and friends, etc.). And finally when is enough enough (I.e. -- at what point do you start counting down the hours till spring)?

Until next time, have a great week, first one's on me this weekend if you can find me! Take care!

Posted at 6:14 pm ET
Can Cars Be Turned Over in Hurricane Winds?
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Dr. Steve Lyons, Tropical Weather Expert

I thought about this question for a while and did a little research to find some answers. Unfortunately there is not much written in the literature on the topic. There have been many storm-related reports that included reports of overturned cars but most of them have been from tornado events, not hurricanes (which of course can have embedded tornadoes within them.) Now I'm not talking about a car driving 60 mph down the road into a hurricane, rather you have parked your car in your open driveway and evacuated the area in your minivan before the hurricane arrives. So what wind would it take to turn that car over?

It turns out that there is a link on the web to T. Schmidlin et. al that addresses this question primarily from a tornado basis (see http://ams.confex.com/ams/pdfpapers/50675.pdf.) It can be applied to hurricane winds. These scientists actually listed a series of reports of overturned cars from tornado events...the problem of course is always; what was the wind speed where the car was tipped over?
So they took two models of cars and put them in a wind tunnel and cranked up the wind. I know what its like to be in a wind tunnel, I've been there with 160 mph winds blowing on me from head to nearly my toes. Below I give a brief summary of their findings.

Peak winds in the wind tunnel were at a height of about 1 meter, 3.2 feet directly onto the vehicle. This is a pretty low height, we routinely measure winds at a height of 10 meters or 33 feet above the ground and this is the height wind speeds are estimated and forecast in a hurricane. We can convert the wind speed at 1 meter to that at 10 meters with pretty reliable equations. After we do this conversion, the range of wind speeds necessary at 10 meters (33 feet) to overturn a sedan or minivan range from about 160 to 180 miles per hour. Wow, that is fast and I can vouch for the 160 mph at 1 meter. It would very likely overturn any sedan or minivan; it nearly killed me and I was standing but tied to the floor by a huge nylon rope. One of the highest wind resistances ever measured in the wind tunnel I went in at the University of Washington in Seattle was during my standing in 160 mph winds! It cracked one of my ribs.

So there you have it! Wind with little gustiness and no flying debris of 160-180 mph is necessary to overturn a car. That happens only in a CAT 5 hurricane (it also brackets the F3/F4 tornado scale.) It turns out that railroad cars are easier to topple in high winds and there are numerous websites listing papers on that specific topic.

Oh, but wait a minute, what happens when you add a lot of wind gusts in a real hurricane? Well those gusts can cause a vehicle to rock, and that rocking motion is likely to lower the tip-over wind speed a little bit anyway; by how much no one is sure. There is another aspect to this as well. What happens if you have parked your car next to a 5 foot high cement wall on the side of a 12 story building? Obviously if strong winds blow there too, they can be deflected and blocked by unmovable objects like cement walls. The result is that wind must blow up the wall and then over it, thus providing a component of wind lift on a vehicle left in such a location. This was the case in the NOAA photo below take in the parking lot at the old National Hurricane Center in Miami. Obviously high profile vehicles are more vulnerable to high winds than are cars. Below is another NOAA photo from hurricane Andrew of a U-HAUL van flipped upside down onto a roof, like the photo above it, there was a source of upward motion caused by the walls of building. Hurricane Andrew was a CAT 5 hurricane, yet very few vehicles were found overturned, however many were damaged by flying debris.

Car lifted by hurricane Andrew winds (NOAA photo).

Van flipped by hurricane Andrew (NOAA photo).

In both situations the vehicles were parked next to nearly immovable objects where upward motion and lift from strong horizontal winds likely occurred and resulted in lifting and/or overturning of the vehicles. In general in most hurricanes, and even in some of the most intense ones, don't expect to see but a very few overturned cars unless the culprit is an isolated tornado or surging water, not wind. And remember your car is likely safer in a hurricane parked away from objects that can cause horizontal winds to deflect wind into locally strong rising lift!

Posted at 5:25 pm ET
Hurricanes and Colorado?
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Dr. Steve Lyons, Tropical Weather Expert

Well if you have read my blogs over the past year or so you realize that when it comes to hurricanes I am bent on mitigation (damage prevention prior to an event occurring). And this blog is just one more dagger in the heart of our U.S. hurricane problem. Based on some of my past blogs you should now know that:

1. no seasonal hurricane forecast or short-time range hurricane forecast no matter how good will ever prevent the event from occurring

2. no insurance on any object or person will ever prevent damage to it

3. government disaster relief and any other privately funded disaster relief/aid efforts will never prevent the disaster from occurring

So the solution is to keep the disaster from happening in the first place. We can and (in some localized cases) have done this, and in such cases the stellar results are obviously far less damage. Other nations (may of which cannot afford big disasters) are far ahead of the U.S. in hurricane mitigation, they have realized it is far cheaper to invest in disaster prevention than to continue to pay for disasters over and over again. Cancun, Mexico immediately comes to mind, but so too does greater Boulder Colorado! Before you say what in the world are you talking about, read on.

It turns out that mostly in the cool half of the year and most frequently in winter strong down slope winds descend the Rocky Mountains in the form of Chinook Winds. I will not dwell on how or why here, but on occasion Chinooks can become very strong and produce winds close to or exceeding hurricane strength. Table 1 below shows the number of Chinook wind events that exceeded 70 mph (basically a CAT 1 hurricane) from 1969 to 2002. There have been approximately a total of 175 such events in the lee of the Rockies! Can you imagine even a CAT 1 hurricane striking an area that many times since 1969? Most areas are hit by a hurricane once in 4 years, or far less frequently than that.

Table 1. Number of wind events greater than 70 mph (top) and year they occurred (bottom), 1969 to 2002. (A) Total number of documented events >70 mph by year; (B) Total number of years with at least one day >70mph documented in any month. (Taken from NOAA Earth Systems Research Laboratory, see website: http://www.cdc.noaa.gov/Boulder/wind.html)

An example of specific wind events for just one of the years (1999) listed above is shown in Table 2. Effectively 15 wind events had gusts near or in Saffir/Simpson CAT 1 hurricane strength with one into the CAT 2 range.

TABLE 2. Some strong wind events in greater Boulder in 1999.

Note that when we look for strong wind measurements in hurricane landfall events actual measured winds on land are typically far less than the Saffir/Simpson category at landfall. For example during hurricane Ike on the Texas coast in 2008, Texas Tech University had a large array of wind measuring devices near the coast. Highest winds measured by any of the 20 anemometers deployed were sustained at 74 mph, one peak gust reached 108 mph about 23 miles inland, but most site gusts were below 90 mph (see http://www.atmo.ttu.edu/TTUHRT/Ike.htm). So the winds listed in Table 2 are very strong and consistent with winds that have been "measured" over land in CAT 1 and CAT 2 hurricanes.
Even in a perfectly build world there will be damage to signs, trees, vegetation, fences and automobiles left out in flying and falling debris. So we should never expect "perfect mitigation." Some of the greatest insured damage losses for a few of the numerous strong wind events in Colorado are shown in Table 3. These are not negligible damage costs, but compared to our multi-BILLION dollar hurricane wind disasters (e.g. Andrew, Wilma) this is chicken-feed. Of course Andrew had measured winds much greater than those measured in most Chinooks.

TABLE 3: Wind damage from various strong Chinook wind events in Colorado (~80% of the damage listed can be attributed to homes and ~20% to automobiles).

$20 million in insured damage occurred along the Front Range on April 8-10, 1999.

$20 million in insured damage occurred in Boulder County on Jan. 17, 1982.

$10 million in insured damage occurred along the Front Range on Jan. 28-29, 1987.

$5.2 million in insured damage occurred along the Front Range on Oct. 29, 1996.

$3 million in insured damage occurred along the Front Range on Feb. 2-3, 1999.

A significant part of the answer to these relatively minor damage costs in Colorado high wind events can be found within the structural integrity of homes build in Chinook prone wind areas. The high wind events are so common there, that communities could not and cannot afford to constantly rebuild homes and roofs from frequent wind damage, nor can insurers afford to constantly pay to rebuild them. They have significantly limited the damage by building "stuff" so it will sustain no damage or mostly minor damage from even the strongest of Chinook winds. Numerous counties within the Colorado "front range" have adopted a wind design criteria of 110 mph or greater, and these are sustained winds lasting at least 2 hours!
Our U.S. government and U.S. coastal states should learn from Colorado and require structures to be built, and old structures to be retrofit, so they too sustain no damage or mostly minor damage from wind events that are possible in their areas. There are already many examples of hurricane wind-proof homes, one actually when through CAT 4 hurricane Charley in 2004 with effectively no damage while homes and mobile homes all around it crumbled to the ground! Fortunately some states have recently adopted more stringent wind codes for coastal areas. Below is a wind code map for Texas, it is based on the 2006 International Building Code (Texas Dept. of Insurance, see: http://www.tdi.state.tx.us/wind/geninfo.html#catastrophe . ) Although these winds are 3-second gusts (compared to Colorado's 2 hours), this is still an excellent improvement over past codes for new homes and buildings in Texas. Many other states have adopted more stringent new build requirements in recent years. Of course without proper enforcement, codes are not worth the paper they are printed on. Unfortunately a very large percent of structures along all of our hurricane prone coasts are old, and they do not conform to new stringent codes. There lies the problem; they will add great cost to the next strong hurricane event that hits them.

Of course preventing wind damage does not prevent damage from flooding rainfall, coastal water rise or waves; that for the most part requires not building in some areas and/or elevating structures; perhaps a topic for a future blog.

Posted at 5:15 pm ET
January 14, 2009
Baby It's Cold Outside
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Stephanie Abrams, On-Camera Meteorologist

Do you have that song in your head now? Sorry if you are singing it for the rest of the day! Ha!

Okay, I'm curious to know the coldest temperature you have ever felt. I was trying to think of the coldest I have felt and unfortunately with the horrible memory that I have (that's a whole nother blog) I can't remember the coldest temperatures I have experienced. I know, it's sad I can't remember that, but I know it hasn't been anything to super impressive and this blog isn't about me anyway, it's about you! Back to the main point of the blog, let me know what the coldest temperature is you have ever felt, describe it, send pictures. Also, if you live somewhere its really cold, tell me what that's like, I have never lived in a cold climate!

Also, here is the windchill chart from the National Weather Service so you can see how quickly you can get frostbite. I'm trying to see if we can get a doctor on the show to talk about frostbite and frostnip. I was told that if you have frostbite (say on your hand) you aren't supposed to put that body part in warm water, but cold water instead. I'm not a frostbite expert, so I don't know if that is right/wrong, helpful/hurtful.


Blog me back or email us at abramsandbettes@weather.com

Posted at 7:15 pm ET
Steam Devils and Other Whirlwinds
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Dr. Greg Forbes, Severe Weather Expert

We're all familiar with tornadoes, but there are other types of rotating columns of air (vortices or whirlwinds), even in winter. The photo below from near Toronto, Canada (courtesy of The Weather Network) shows steam devils. There are two of them that I've bracketed by red markings. One is in the center foreground and the other in the right background.

Steam devils are rotating columns of rising air, formed as bitterly cold air is heated by unfrozen water (or possibly thin ice at a temperature much warmer than the air). Moisture evaporated from the water surface then condenses in the colder air and slightly lowered pressure in the vortex. Some locally generated wind swirl gets concentrated into more vigorous rotation as it is drawn into the rising air column, like a skater spinning faster as arms are pulled inward (conservation of angular momentum), and the vortex is formed. Video showed counterclockwise rotation of the closer steam devil in this case, but they can also rotate counterclockwise.

My estimate is that the rotation of this steam devil was pretty weak, maybe not more than 30 mph, and I don't expect steam devils to become strong enough to produce damage. By the way, scientists on a research aircraft saw hundreds of steam devils over the Atlantic Ocean off North Carolina in the bitterly cold air mass that resulted in the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger back in 1986.

A cousin vortex is the dust devil, formed on sunny days when the land surface gets much hotter than the air above ground. Some dust devils can become strong enough to produce EF0 or perhaps EF1 damage (and definitely at least eye damage from the blowing dust). The photo below shows one captured by TWC Weather Warrior dcmcc99 near Landers, CA on September 17, 2008.

Another cousin is the fire whirl or fire devil (see photo below), formed in the intense heating from fires. I did a
blog on these in October 2007. They can also reach EF0 or EF1 intensity. The generic term for these rotating air columns is whirlwind.

A more distant cousin is the waterspout. Unlike the whirlwinds above, this vortex is usually associated with a growing cloud, occasionally with thunderstorms. Accordingly, the waterspout has the potential to become even stronger than its whirlwind cousins. The one below was photographed by TWC Weather Warrior Marie Osowski over Lake Buchanan Dam, Texas, on September 9, 2008.

Posted at 5:28 pm ET
January 13, 2009
Yeah, It's Cold, But It Is Winter After All!
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Stephanie Abrams, On-Camera Meteorologist

It's is down right frigid through the eastern half of the county (give or take a few miles), but it's WINTER....isn't it supposed to be cold? I really want your take on all this cold. Is it a big deal or isn't it? Does the cold weather consume your thoughts? Do you know the cold air is coming when it's days away or do you just wake up in the morning and look on the internet, watch TV, or just open your door? As I write this here are the current wind chills and it's only going to get worse. It will only be a matter of months where we are taking about how HOT it is, so just remember that during these arctic days!

Blog back or email us at abramsandbettes@weather.com

Posted at 2:09 pm ET
January 11, 2009
Detection of weather and cancer
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Stu Ostro, Senior Meteorologist

Meteorologists receive a lot of weather observations, though not from everywhere on the planet and in its atmosphere, so we also rely on "remote sensing" information such as satellite and radar data and imagery to assist us.

A few years ago The Weather Channel developed "High Resolution Aggregated Data," or HiRAD, a state-of-the-art methodology which can further help fill in the gaps between surface observations.

Making a correct weather forecast logically requires an accurate and precise assessment of the initial state of the atmosphere, and fortunately those tools and others give us a good idea of what's going on most of the time. Nevertheless, despite being so advanced, all of this technology has limitations and thus can't perfectly ascertain every weather element at all locations at all times.

Here's an example of the difficulty involved.

Storms in December brought heavy snow down to valley floors in the Pacific Northwest, and the recent one on January 7 caused epic flooding in western Washington due to warmer air, snowmelt, and heavy rain up to all but the highest elevations. In between, the weather system that came onshore a week ago served a combo platter of rain and snow. But where exactly was it raining and where was it snowing?

This water vapor satellite image from the evening of January 4 showed moisture sweeping in aloft, with the white shades over Oregon and Washington suggestive that precipitation was falling in at least some places.

Now let's look at the radar:

Lots of stuff showing up! Indeed, there was preciptation across most of this map area.

Or was there?

That radar image seems to indicate snow in The Dalles. But what was the actual observation at the time?

Cloudy, but no precipitation! That's because sometimes radar imagery picks up snowflakes or raindrops which are evaporating before making it to the ground, which is a phenomenon known as virga.

To the west there was precipitation reaching the Earth's surface, but of what type was it? The Weather Channel and others use a "winter weather radar" mosaic which employs algorithms to differentiate between snow (for which TWC uses white); rain (green); or sleet, freezing rain, or a mixture of different precip types (pink). The winter weather radar scheme does pretty well for the most part but isn't foolproof.

In this case green and pink were in the Portland area, but observations say snow was falling at both of these sites:

And nearby in Portland shortly thereafter, with the temperature teetering near the freezing point, there was this ob:

The dreaded "unknown precipitation"!

Thus even actual surface observations, of that and other automated types, aren't so helpful in all cases. And when it's not easy to know what the weather currently is at a particular spot, that accentuates the challenge of predicting what will happen from that point forward.

Such prognosticative predicaments can involve the life-and-death urgency of tornadoes.

The first National Weather Service (NWS) radar image below is of a supercell -- an intense, rotating thunderstorm -- over southwest Virginia in springtime a few years ago, with a classic "hook echo" on its western (left) flank. In tandem with that hook, the second image shows strong winds blowing in opposite directions (red/green), indicative of air motion aloft which is spinning.

[Source of images: "Examination of Tornadic and Non-tornadic Supercells in Southwest Virginia on 28 April, 2002," Keighton, Kostura, and Liscinsky, NWS Blacksburg, VA]

Below is another supercell a little later. A hook echo is again present, with the red and green colors this time juxtaposed even more closely adjacent to each other and depicting higher wind velocities. That's representative of tighter and stronger rotation and therefore, typically, a higher probability of the circulation not only being aloft but also in contact with the ground (i.e. a tornado).

What happened? The first storm above produced a tornado, while the other one did not! As noted by the authors of the paper from which those images came, differences between tornadic and non-tornadic supercells can be very subtle, and only one out of the four supercells that day within the area of study produced a tornado. That's not unusual; in fact it's similar to the percentage found via an analysis by Trapp, Stumpf, and Manross of a large dataset of thunderstorms with radar-detected strong "mesocyclone" circulations.

If you're an NWS forecaster on duty, you don't want to not issue a tornado warning based on that low percentage and then find out that a twister killed people, with a headline screaming "No Warning" in the next day's newspaper along with a photo of grieving relatives.

The upshot of the intricacies of tornado formation and detection is a high warning false alarm rate, an issue which has been studied from not only a meteorological perspective but also a statistical and social science one, such as in this paper by Barnes, Gruntfest, Hayden, Schultz, and Benight.

And there are parallels between the meteorological and medical professions. Diagnoses and prognoses with profound consequences must be made with what information is available, however incomplete or uncertain it might be.

[Remote sensing, medical version: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of a brain showing a bright blue color where cancer is metastasizing. Source: National Cancer Institute; Dr. Leon Kaufman, University of California, San Francisco]

[A transmission electron micrograph (TEM) of RNA tumor virus particles, which are linked to the initiation of tumors ("oncogenesis"). Source: CDC Public Health Image Library / Dr. Fred Murphy, Sylvia Whitfield]

Meteorologists and medical professionals face similar challenges, with the former using satellite/radar imagery and other tools, and the latter employing in cancer detection and research such things as X-rays, MRIs, blood tests, and electron microscopy ... but those modern medical techniques have limitations as well. And if an analysis doesn't detect a disease (or injury) which exists, or gives a false positive, or presents a high degree of uncertainty, then that has ramifications for the treatment or lack thereof.

M&M; (meteorological & medical) similarities have been noted by others, such as in this paper by K. Ruben Gabriel about statistical issues in medical and meteorological experimentation, and Richard Somerville's "Medical Metaphors" essay on climate change.

The M&M; comparison has been something I've been thinking about a lot lately, following my brother Steve's recent passing due to male breast cancer and its spread and complications. After being by his side with other immediate family members and then posting a tribute to him in these blog pages, I came back to Georgia but returned to California for a memorial service. While waiting in LAX airport the next day for the trip home, I was browsing in a store looking for reading material for the long flight, and was stopped in my tracks by what was on a Wired Magazine cover: "The Truth About Cancer: Don't try to cure it. Just find it. Inside the science of early detection."

The highlight on that section's opening two-page spread: "If we find cancer early, 90 percent survive. If we find cancer late, 10 percent survive."

The article is the story of a man's (Don Listwin) and an organization's (Canary Foundation) quest for effective early detection. Readers posting comments to the online version mentioned another such endeavor (Richard Cavalli and CeMines), plus a new early detection method for breast cancer (although apparently it's not yet for men).

The Wired feature describes the challenges involved in accurate early detection, and the reader reaction includes a spirited discussion about to what extent the focus of research should be on early detection of cancer vs. treatment and finding a cure vs. a better understanding of the causes.

A few days ago there was a comment referencing a specific rebuttal to the Wired article, to which in turn there were comments that included a response from Thomas Goetz, the article's author, as well as a reference to a thorough discussion by a surgeon/scientist of the difficulties and dilemmas of early detection, which is not a panacea.

[Image source: World Health Organization resolution on cancer prevention and control]

Per the first part of this entry, as a meteorologist I have a first-hand appreciation of the complexities of those sorts of issues, yet I also know this: if my brother's cancer had been found early, at Stage I rather than Stage IV, he'd be alive today.

But he's not, and there are countless people who every day are dying due to cancer or something else (sometimes including tornadoes and other hazardous weather such as this flash flood tragedy in Alabama last week), or are alive but struggling with disease or injuries. I am deeply thankful for everyone's comments to my recent entry, and was moved by those who shared stories of their own health challenges as well as those -- and in some cases the passing -- of family members and friends.

All of this serves to reinforce that everything can change in an instant, and one should not take for granted one's life or health or that of others. As Phil Kerslake, who has been on a journey with cancer since 1975, says in his book Life, Happiness ... & Cancer, "For those who have passed on, I honour your memory in the best way I know how -- by living every day to the fullest extent possible ..."

Amen. Seeing a loved one for whom each breath was a courageous effort to survive, until there were finally no more breaths to take, certainly puts things in perspective and engenders a philosophy of making the most of every second of one's life!

Posted at 11:59 pm ET
January 9, 2009
Hurricanes and Property Insurance
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Dr. Steve Lyons, Tropical Weather Expert

About 15 years ago I became very interested in hurricane property insurance, and cost trends in it. I continue to follow those trends today. Of particular concern to me were those states most vulnerable to big hurricane strikes (namely Florida, Texas, Louisiana and North Carolina) and how/where "stuff" was being built at alarming rates in very hurricane vulnerable coastal zones and inland. Of course any hurricane prone state from Texas to New England has potential for a hugely costly hurricane disaster.

I had made a forecast back then (known only to me and a number of people I have lobbied to some in talks I have given over the years) that rising insurance costs from hurricane disasters would lead to widespread disaster mitigation; namely everything new would be built far better and everything old (especially when it was damaged by a hurricane) would be rebuilt or retrofit to withstand FAR more effectively the perils of hurricane winds the next time around. Thus far, my forecast has been a big bust, at least on a national level! For example look at the overall damage associated with hurricane Wilma in greater Miami in 2005, about 13 years after hurricane Andrew devastated the area in 1992! There has been some success along these lines, but they have come far too slowly and occurred on far too small a scale compared to what I had envisioned in my forecast 15 years ago.

I was convinced then and am still convinced now that the solution to these multi-billion dollar hurricane disasters is not to bail out the problem with huge federal disaster relief programs (effectively a giant Band-Aid slapped over each big hurricane event). These programs cost the entire nation a huge amount of money, and government disaster relief has been wrought with huge inefficiency, overhead costs and individual cheating, none of which I will discuss here. None of all this disaster relief prevents or lessens the impacts from the next disaster!

Rather, I proposed something 15 years ago and do so today to eliminate the potential for a large "cut" needing a giant Band-Aid in the first place! Very much along the lines of health care costs and "preventative health care": namely, instead of just healing the sick with rising health care costs, how about preventing people from getting sick in the first place? Bring the idea to the hurricane insured: a FAR lesser insurance rate should be available for the home owner that buys/builds his/her house out of bricks on dry land than for the home owner that buys/builds his/her house out of straw on the beach!

It turns out that if you move to Florida these days, it is very likely you will not be able to get home insurance unless you go through Florida's state owned, regulated and managed insurance now called "Citizens Insurance." It was and is an effort to keep home and business insurance costs affordable to Florida citizens and business owners, whether "affordable" really covers the cost of hurricane disaster risk or not has been debated.

An overview of that Florida insurance plan and the perils currently associated with it were written up by Brent Winans in 2008 in the link below. I like it because it concisely captures the perilous dance the state of Florida is doing with a big hurricane threat(s) and Citizens insurance money. Would it not be far safer to prevent a major portion of a disaster from being able to occur in the first place than to go a high risk route?

Winans Citizens Hurricane CAT Fund

This reminds of a similar corollary that goes like this; you pay a monthly mortgage on your home and have looked for the cheapest one possible in order to afford the biggest, best home for your money. Perhaps you found a temporary zero interest balloon loan or maybe just a balloon loan, thinking you would move before you ever had to pay a dime toward interest on your loan or begin to pay the inflated interest rate. But as the saying goes "stuff happens." The local real estate market crashes and you now have a home worth only 60 or 70% of what you owe on it. You can no longer move, you cannot trade up and if the payments become too much for your current job situation you cannot sell it for what you owe on it. You are stuck in place "upside-down" in a home you no longer want and can no longer afford. Gee, this is the current horrible state of the US home loan economy, much of which was driven by companies that made loans to individuals they knew would likely have great difficulty making payments and/or to people who asked for those loans knowing that unless their rosy view of their future didn't pan out or they could sell for a profit they were doomed.

In my opinion this is a similar situation the state of Florida has gotten itself into relative to hurricane insurance! In the process of trying to keep insurance rates low (relative to business practices of many private companies), Florida has undercut costs of many conscientious, smart and fiscally responsible private sector insurers that did or do business in that state. I know no one wants high home insurance rates, I sure don't, but I do want my insurance to pay off if I ever have to use it. The hurricane disaster hammer could fall on Florida at any time, perhaps in 2009, perhaps in 2010 or maybe with some "luck" Florida will be spared from a big hurricane disaster for a number of years and will be able to accumulate enough cash in the Citizens fund between now and then to be able to pay off all claims from a big disaster(s) when it finally arrives; it will arrive. All I can say is keep your fingers crossed that big hurricane disasters remain at bay because it sounds similar to that rosy outlook the homeowner had when taking that high risk home loan!

So what will the future hold for states with their own hurricane insurance businesses? Perhaps they will be lucky and dodge big hurricane disasters for a while and residents will be thankful to those who saved them money. If the disasters do come, be ready for more government bail-outs.

My best suggestion is to do everything possible to prevent the need for another Band-Aid before the next big injury is too large for one! If I could give our incoming President some quick (10 seconds) hurricane advice, it would be to immediately redirect much of government's disaster relief budget into a greatly expanded disaster mitigation program with a focus on personal responsibility. What insurance you have would likely become much less an issue, and its cost would likely fall, especially if far less damage occurred because of mitigation measures. In the long run it would be far cheaper for everyone and a better idea than "hoping" the big hurricane disaster misses your state in 2009 or beyond!

Posted at 5:28 pm ET
Pat Yourself on the Back
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Jeff Mielcarz, Road Crew Host

OK friends -- it's time for everyone to take out their right hand extend it out and give yourself a nice pat on the back. Congratulations, you've made it to the weekend and for most of you reading this in the Northwest, YOU REALLY DESERVE IT!!

Not only has it been a wild week, but it's been a wild COUPLE of weeks out in the Northwest. Did you know that thanks to a number of storm systems continually barraging the Northeast that Portland, OR has received at least a TRACE of precipitation for 23 straight days and their neighbors to the North in Seattle have had some sort of water product falling from the sky for the last 16!? A break in the action is long overdue especially after seeing pictures and video from the horrible flooding throughout Washington State!

So as I said above good news is on the way just in time for the weekend! My good buddy Tom Moore in the meteorology department downstairs just gave this great analogy for what's about to happen. A ridge is going to build into the Northwest (after another storm brings rain to Washington state on Saturday). This ridge is going to force storm systems rolling out of the Pacific Ocean up in Alaska. Since I'm typing this it's difficult to describe a ridge on a map, but think of it as a hump in the road (only this time it's a pretty big hump ... a hill in fact). The storm systems will basically ride that road up over the Northwest into Alaska. This is where Tom's analogy comes in ... he referred to this ridge as a sort of teapot so good news for some may not be great news for others. That means as you tip the teapot up (so the tea comes out the spout) cold temperatures will flow out into the country as a strong high pressure system builds in all the way down into the southeast (this is on tap for midweek next week).

So long story short the good people of Seattle and Portland are finally going to get some much needed Vitamin D from the sun -- in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if people just stepped outside their homes and lifted their faces to the sky for hours on end. That would be a great Weather Warriors picture by the way if anyone happens to catch any of that. However, while it may seem like the sun hasn't been out for a while in the northwest in a truly amazing turn of events, Cleveland, OH has only seen ONE sunny day since December 1st! So if you have any friends or family out there, pick up the phone, give em a call and make sure they aren't suffering from a mild bout of depression (if something doesn't sound right ... you'll know why ... advice -- one way ticket to the Sunshine State!)

Finally if there's anyone reading this in Fairbanks, Alaska would you mind commenting here and just letting me know how you live there and keep your sanity 1) with the 6 months of darkness thing and 2) WITH THE COLD? I'll never forget going to Fairbanks in February last year to cover the Ice Carving Championship (some truly amazing artists by the way). It was abnormally warm, you know ... somewhere around 31 degrees. My camera guy and I are bundled up in 6 maybe 7 layers, still shivering and here come people going in and out of restaurants in (and I'm not making this up) shorts and t-shirts with smiles BEAMING! It would have been comical and I may have smiled if my teeth hadn't been chattering so loudly. Anyway, I want you to know that SINCE LAST Sunday January 4th) the low temperature in Fairbanks has been -45 or lower (and no that's not a typo). To add insult to injury, the last time their temperature was warmer than -30 was last FRIDAY (January 2nd)! I just have to say -- you are all some hardcore people out there and I have the greatest amount of respect for you. It's one of the only places in America where you can take a cup of hot coffee outside -- throw it into the air -- and it phase changes so fast that the coffee basically disappears (now that's PRETTY COOL)!

There's a lot of other cool weather stories going on out there, but hey, it's Friday and you don't want to be listening to me yack all day ... it's time for Happy Hour somewhere! So until next time thanks for spending a couple of minutes with me -- stay warm -- and have a great weekend!

(Special thanks to Jonathan Erdman for all the fun facts today)

Posted at 2:28 pm ET
January 8, 2009
Washington Deluge and Flood
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Dr. Greg Forbes, Severe Weather Expert

As I write this on the afternoon of January 8, heavy rains have ended in Western Washington, but massive river flooding continues -- as does a threat for avalanches and landslides. No doubt you have heard that for a while Seattle was virtually trapped, with I-5 closed by river flooding south of the city and a mudslide north of the city. All of the roads east of Seattle across the Cascades were closed. Even Amtrak trains between Seattle and Portland, Oregon were stopped. Many of these transportation issues persist, and people have had to evacuate from their homes due to flooding.

Stu Ostro wrote a blog on January 6 that dealt with several aspects of this storm. In this blog, I thought I'd focus on the rate of rise and fall of the rivers in this area and put them in contrast to some past floods in other areas.

The map below shows topography of the region surrounding Seattle, along with a portion of the rivers that were in major flooding as of about 12:30 PM on January 8 -- shown in purple. The dark brown areas on the east side of the map are the Cascades; those on the west side the Olympics. Heaviest rains fell on the west slopes of the Cascades, with runoff coming into and down the rivers flowing generally westward. (Map courtesy of National Weather Service and Northwest River Forecast Center, and the U.S. Geological Survey)

In all, rivers have gone into major flooding in at least 24 gauge (measurement) locations, involving at least 20 rivers and one large gauged creek. Record flood levels were reached in at least two locations. One or two more locations could still rise into major or even record flooding shortly after I write this. I should point out that the flood area extends farther southwest than the map, and some rivers had crested and fallen back below major levels by the time the map was created.

Because this is a mountainous area, the rivers have a rather steep slope. They flow fast, rise fast and now are receding or will recede fast. The figure below, called a hydrograph, shows the quick rise (blue) and predicted fall (green) of the Snoqualmie River near Carnation, Washington -- located by arrow on the map above. "Stage" indicates the height of the river above some reference value, with purple indicating major flooding levels. A record 61.55 feet was reached at this location, breaking the old record of 61.17 feet set on November 7, 2006. Records have been kept at this location since at least 1932.

The Snoqualmie River here rose at a rate of about 0.5 feet per hour on January 7. Other rivers rose even faster. The Naselle River at Naselle rose 1.2 feet per hour. The Tolt River near Carnation briefly rose at a rate of 3.5 feet per hour. For that river you could literally stand there for a few minutes and see a perceptible rise!

Most rivers recede more slowly than they rise. The rise is steep, driven largely by the fast surface runoff. Rivers recede more slowly, partly because there continues to be subsequent/delayed flow into the rivers from waters within the ground (subsurface flow). At Carnation, using the prediction above, the river will fall at a rate of about 4.9 feet per 24 hours, and drop below flood stage (the interface between yellow and orange above) around 10 PM on Friday January 9.

How do these rise and fall rates compare to other noteworthy floods? I picked three comparison events. In June 2008 there was a major flood in central and eastern Iowa due to runoff by prolonged thunderstorms. The Cedar River at Cedar Rapids reached a crest 11 feet higher than the previous record! There was massive, record flooding over the Central United States in the summer of 1993, including a record flood on the Mississippi River at St. Louis, MO. This was largely due to repeated bouts of widespread thunderstorm rainfall. Thunderstorms stalled along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado northwest of Fort Collins and gave a devastating flood on the Big Thompson River on July 31, 1976. The latter was about as bad as a flash flood can get, with a wall of water about 18 feet high coming down a mountain gorge. There are only eyewitness accounts of it, rather than actual measurements.

Western Washington, January 2009 -- rose up to 3.5 feet in 1 hour;
will fall about 4.9 feet in 24 hours
Cedar River, Cedar Rapids, IA, June, 2008 -- took 10.5 hours to rise 3.5 feet;
fell about 3.25 feet in 24 hours
Mississippi River, St. Louis, 1993 -- took 48 hours to rise 3.5 feet;
fell about 0.75 feet in 24 hours
Big Thompson River, CO, 1976 -- took probably seconds to rise 3.5 feet;
probably fell several feet per minute

The flatter terrain in Iowa and Missouri resulted in much slower rates of rise and fall of the rivers in the flood events there. Cedar Rapids was closer to the source region where the heavy rain fell, so the river there rose and receded faster than at locations farther downstream. The Big Thompson flood had the worst of all circumstances -- torrential thunderstorm rains, running off into a narrow river through a gorge, and in very steep terrain. The rise was almost instantaneous in places and the fall not well documented, but very fast. There were no thunderstorms involved in the Washington flood, so flash flooding wasn't involved, but the steep terrain nevertheless resulted in very fast water rises.

One lesson to be learned from this is that in mountainous terrain, flooding can develop very quickly. At Carnation, WA they went from no flooding to major flooding in 9 hours. Another lesson is that when thunderstorms and their heavier rainfall rates are involved, flooding can develop extremely fast. And in any flood event, fast-flowing water only a foot deep flowing across a road can sweep away a vehicle. Water deeper than that (about 2 feet deep) - even if it isn't flowing fast - can stall out the engine and even float the vehicle.

Please don't drive into flooded roadways. And if you live in a river flood plain and are told to evacuate, please do so. Stay safe!

Posted at 11:38 pm ET

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